Ernst Lubitsch

The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Ernst Lubitsch)

The Shop Around the Corner has a lot going on in a limited space. It’s not particularly long–under 100 minutes–and it mostly takes place in (or outside) the titular shop. And, while the present action is about six and a half months (there’s a big jump), the back story defines a lot of the characters and backstory.

It also requires the viewer pay a lot of attention to the details in dialogue. Samson Raphaelson’s script–adapted from a play, which accounts for the big jump in time (director Lubitsch beautifully turns act breaks and scene breaks into gentle resets for the viewer with fade outs)–always has a lot of talking and many of the details become important. It’s all so well-written and so well-performed, you get the important details because you don’t want to miss even disposable dialogue.

The film has two leads–James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. They start out equal, but Stewart gets more to do in the second half as his professional story arc (involving their boss, Frank Morgan) becomes very important. The Shop Around the Corner is a romantic comedy, but it’s also a film with a lot of seriousness. Not even the romantic stuff is always happy–or always hopeful. Lubitsch goes out of his way to create a world where dramatic turns can be negative (and inevitable).

The supporting performances are outstanding; Morgan, Felix Bressart and William Tracy are standouts.

Shop is simultaneously quietly and noisily brilliant. It’s wonderful.



Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, based on a play by Miklós László; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by Werner R. Heymann; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Stewart (Alfred Kralik), Margaret Sullavan (Klara Novak), Frank Morgan (Hugo Matuschek), Felix Bressart (Pirovitch), William Tracy (Pepi Katona), Sara Haden (Flora), Inez Courtney (Ilona) and Joseph Schildkraut (Ferencz Vadas).

Trouble in Paradise (1932, Ernst Lubitsch)

Trouble in Paradise features some great filmmaking. Here, Lubitsch runs wild with the passage of time–there’s a great sequence with various clocks marking the minutes, but there’s a lot of carefully orchestrated fades as well. The film opens with an excellent mixed shot–again, careful fading–moving from one side of a hotel to another. It goes from actors to a model to actors. It’s exquisite.

I almost forgot Lubitsch’s transition between the first and second acts–he goes to a radio advertisement (seeing the announcer deliver it into the microphone), then does an actual advertisement for the product, then transition to the makers of the product–all before revealing if it has any bearing on the story. It’s a gleeful move. These techniques make it almost impossible to recognize Trouble in Paradise‘s origin as a play.

Being Lubitsch, his direction of his actors is, no shock, perfect. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Herbert Marshall give a better performance. He and Miriam Hopkins have a half dozen fantastic scenes together. They even make the final scene work, even though it really shouldn’t. But the film has three leads–Kay Francis is the third–and Hopkins gets the boot for much of the second act. It’s impossible to forget her, but the film practically begs for the viewer to do it. Trouble in Paradise‘s trouble is its genre–it’s an infidelity comedy. Unlike the more sophisticated members of this genre, Trouble leaves Hopkins in something of a lurch. Worse, it never corrects its perspective. Hopkins is always the primary female protagonist, which makes Marshall into a heel. Even worse, it never gives much room for Francis to make an honest impression. She goes from being the mark to being the other woman with a nicely edited sequence involving the butler never being able to figure out if she’s in her room or in Marshall’s.

The film’s third act is something of a narrative disaster. The film’s been building to it all through the second act, but since the script doesn’t love triangle… it seems possible it will be avoided. There are countless opportunities for it to go the other way (I’m not really sure where it would go, but it’d have been somewhere creative, I’m sure) and as they all fall away, it gets kind of tedious. The film doesn’t turn out the way I expected, but only because the third act’s constant oscillation confused the hell out of me.

In the end, Trouble in Paradise is almost a better viewing experience than a finished product. It’s fantastic throughout, only to fail to deliver in the last quarter. It’s got the great Marshall and Hopkins performances. Francis is quite good, even if her character is poorly written. Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton–and Robert Greig as the butler–are excellent in supporting roles. The script’s approach to Horton in the late second act, however, serves as ominous foreshadowing of the problems to follow. C. Aubrey Smith has a smaller role and is solid, but much like Francis, there isn’t a character.

I was thinking my high expectations for the film might have lead to undue harshness, but then I realized the film raised those expectations… I don’t even think I properly conveyed my disappointment.



Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, based on an adaption by Grover Jones of a play by Aladar Laszlo; director of photography, Victor Milner; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Miriam Hopkins (Lily), Kay Francis (Mariette Colet), Herbert Marshall (Gaston Monescu), Charles Ruggles (The Major), Edward Everett Horton (François Filiba), C. Aubrey Smith (Adolph J. Giron) and Robert Greig (Jacques the Butler).

Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch)

From the first third of Design for Living, it’s impossible to think it might not be absolutely fantastic throughout. Eventually it does hit a dry period and it’s impossible to think it’s going to pull out of it. Then it does and it’s impossible to think… well, you get the idea. I don’t know why I wasn’t fully trusting of Lubitsch, but during that dry spell, I really did think he’d lost control of the film.

The problem he–and the characters–needs to work out is a familiar one, the love triangle, but here with the added complication of the two male legs being best friends. I’m not sure how much of the solution Lubitsch got from Noel Coward’s source play (Ben Hecht’s adaptation only retained one line of dialogue and I can’t find any information on the plotting), but Lubitsch’s resolution is perfect. The film’s already over its bumpy period and it’s already assured he’s going to end it well, but the way he does is even better than expected.

The bumpy period–which probably only lasts fifteen minutes, at most, of the film’s ninety minute running time–is distinct because of what it lacks. The film opens with Miriam Hopkins sitting down across from Gary Cooper and Fredric March. The opening minutes are silent, followed by a minute of Cooper and Hopkins speaking French, then it’s the trio full steam. They all play perfectly off each other, so when the film’s without them–when it’s just March or just Cooper–it doesn’t work right. Hopkins works great with both of them, but they don’t work quite so well when they aren’t together. In fact, there’s a whole scene emphasizing that point.

Seeing Cooper and March–two leading men–sharing a film like this one, complimenting each other so well, it’s hard to believe they never reunited. The film only spends thirty seconds establishing the friendship–silently no less–between the two. While March went on to do a lot of comedies, Cooper only did them in his (relatively) early career, at least playing up his abilities as a physical comedian. Both of them are superb; hearing them fire Hecht’s dialogue back and forth is joyous.

What’s so frustrating about not knowing how Hecht’s adaptation works is in terms of discussing the scene structure. If I didn’t know the film came from a play, had I missed the opening titles, I might have guessed it. The scenes have a lot of dialogue and a lack of mobility–even if it’s a multi-room setting, the action takes place in the same areas. But then there are other touches–Lubitsch communicating the passage of time with an advertisement on a bus, for example–which are entirely filmic.

The handling of Edward Everett Horton’s character, a ludicrous suitor for Hopkins, is also rather filmic. Horton manages the film’s second most difficult performance (Hopkins having the first, having to convey her conflicted feelings for both Cooper and March in a constantly fresh way); Horton has to both be believable and absurd. The film makes a few drastic changes to the character to keep him in line for the narrative to work and Horton negotiates them well. He’s an amusing, antagonistic buffoon.

The film’s such a success, I’m a little surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Between the performances–the pairing of Cooper and March and Hopkins in general–Lubitsch’s sublime direction (that opening is masterful), and Hecht’s script… Design for Living should be much better known.



Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on the play by Noel Coward; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Frances Marsh; music by John Leipold; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Tom Chambers), Gary Cooper (George Curtis), Miriam Hopkins (Gilda Farrell), Edward Everett Horton (Max Plunkett), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Douglas), Isabel Jewell (Plunkett’s Stenographer), Jane Darwell (Curtis’s Housekeeper) and Wyndham Standing (Max’s Butler).

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